March 14, 2006

First Impressions: Planning Board Forum

The two Planning Board incumbents who haven't yet responded to my e-mail questions spoke at a local candidates forum last night. It's hard to draw conclusions from half an hour, but my first impressions are that all three running for two spots on the board appear knowledgeable and qualified - a happy state of affairs for such important positions in town.

So then we come to the issues. I was puzzled by the tone of questions from some of the panel, particularly former selectman and state rep John Stefanini, implying that Framingham is a difficult and sometimes hostile place to do business for developers. Sorry, but looking around this community compared to surrounding towns, I find it hard to conclude that Framingham is under-developed and under-invested. Perhaps it is if you look at Worcester (his comparison); but he might also want to look at other communities in MetroWest. Is it perhaps easier to build a major project in Sudbury? Wayland? Southborough? I doubt it.

I got the impression that Planning Board Chair Tom Mahoney agreed with Stefanini's premise. I was somewhat unhappy at the chairman's comments regarding the Planning Board's role. As I heard and understood him, he doesn't want the Planning Board spending time on granular details such as types of trees, but instead sticking to a more broad picture. I, on the other hand, believe that some details often considered "frills" are actually critically important to the aesthetics and impact of a project.

I'm generally impressed by Carol Spack's credentials, knowledge and command of issues, whether she is talking about zoning, the development process, neighborhoods, or pedestrian issues. Carol lives in my neighborhood and I've run into her at a number of different town events. She's bright and knowledgeable, and I'm glad she's willing to volunteer her time for the town.

Unfortunately, the forum was scheduled on the Jewish holiday of Purim, so candidate Stephen Meltzer couldn't attend. However, you can see his answers to my questions here, as well as more about him on his blog.

One issue that was touched on briefly at the forum but needs much more examination, is the fact that Framingham has a limited amount of open space left for new development. Instead, the town needs to work more on attracting redevelopment of existing buildings and projects. Carol said she's been asking a question that I've also been wondering for years: How is it that so much apparently valuable commercial property in town has been left vacant for so long, including places like the old lumber business in Saxonville or the abandoned gas station in Nobscot?

The need to make Framingham redevelopment more compelling for developers, AND to attract and design the kind of redevelopment projects that will improve the town (including walkability), are critical issues that go far beyond the planning board. In my opinion, Framingham has structural governmental issues making it difficult to move forward, including a part-time huge legislative body working on complex issues that need more full-time attention.

One of my questions got asked at the forum, about pedestrian-friendly development issues. My notes are still in my car, but as I recall, Carol talked about possibly setting up a subcommittee to look at certain pedestrian issues, creating more trails and ensuring easements when new development blocks existing, traditional walking routes.

Tom Mahoney said that Framingham planning boards used to allow residential developers to build subdivisions without sidewalks - in fact, he complained that the area where he lives has none - but that they now do require sidewalks on at least one side of the street. I was happy to hear that emphasis on sidewalks, but also hope he understands that walkability means much more than installing sidewalks. If you can't walk TO anywhere, you don't have a walkable neighborhood. If you have a pedestrian-hideous streetscape, nobody will be walking even if there are sidewalks. Most of my neighborhood has no sidewalks, but I still consider it quite walkable, because of the friendly streetscape and the fact that I can walk to the post office, hardware store, branch library and other destinations.


  1. Many people don't even notice their surroundings as they drive
    around their towns. Natick and Framingham share lots of ugly
    streetscapes, due to the fact that telephone poles overloaded
    with wires and cables clutter the roadsides. In Framingham, stand
    on Concord St at Saxonville Square, at the light looking toward the
    victorian house on the corner where Elm meets Central St. As you
    look at the house (which looks fine) become aware of the spiderweb
    of cables that cover the intersection like a spider's web. How
    much nicer that intersection would look if the utilities were
    underground. Then travel around and observe the dozens if not more,
    telephone poles that have been doubled up in order to keep them from
    bending over due to the weight of cable on them.
    Things don't have to be so ugly, and if more people were observant,
    maybe something could be done.

  2. That's an interesting planning issue. I imagine the town could ask that new development or redevelopment include utilities underground. I notice this when I try to take photos, and wires often get in the way of a nice picture.

  3. Sharon...I enjoyed reading your thoughts and visions.
    Let me address 2 minor issues. The old Saxonville lumber yard IS being
    utilized, although clearly not in the "highest and best" manner that
    we would envision from a viable neighborhood participant perspective.
    It is being used as a storage yard for a major car rental franchise.
    This use was chosen because it did not require any alteration to the
    ground or terrain, and virtually no alteration inside the large
    retail building. The reason there has been no meaningful development
    to this site is that the owner was experiencing significant legal
    problems as the result of other legal matters and he was, essentially,
    precluded from bringing this property forward. With that now behind
    him, I believe that you will see, in the not too distant future, some
    very exciting proposals for the redevelopment of this parcel.

    Second, and most unfortunately, the long abandoned Texaco station at
    will probably remain inactive and not redeveloped for some time. The
    remediation to the ground in compliance with todays state and federal
    laws is a negative inducement to the property owner. Unless, and until
    this parces is assembled as part of a larger assemblage, it will
    probable remain in its current sad state of condition - because the
    last thing that theisneeds is yet a 3rd station. will remain
    as ugly, decrepid and disheartening as it has for the past 10 plus
    years until the assemblage takes place.

    I would like to address the issue of joining neighborhoods, so that the
    sidewalks can lead somewhere - and why that has been so terribly
    difficult in Framingham - at another time. However, a significant part
    of the problem, and why the solution is so painfully slow, has to do
    with the planning of our residential subdivisions in the 1950s - 1980s
    era - and the developers' desperate plea for the infamous cul d' sac.

    Many Thanks...Sid Gorovitz

    Thanks for your patience...Sid Gorovitz

  4. Undergrounding of utilities is usually mandated in many town bylaws, whenever a new development of homes goes in. However, there has never been a concerted effort to require NStar to do same, except in Natick Square when the new Library/Town Hall/Municipal complex was constructed. At that time, the section of 135 from Main to Mulligan was undergrounded due to a town bylaw. The ratepayers (electric customers) pay a maximum of, I think 2 percent more for a determined number of years added onto their bills. When Rte 135 was undergoing improvements and being turned over to the towns (Framingham last year, Natick last and this year), we lost an opportunity. It's too bad, because if our leaders had been observant and aware of ugly streetscapes, we could have demanded the utility and Commonwealth undertake this beautification. In Natick the section from Speen to downtown is particularly interesting, and one section, called the Henry Wilson Historical District could have become like sections of Newton and Wellesley, which have had a better vision and done such undergrounding. Take a ride through much of Wellesley, including sections of Rte 16, 135, and even part of route 9. Until you become aware that there are no overhead wires, you might just think it's just the style of streetlamps and homes that make those sections attractive.
    Some would say Wellesley manages to finance undergrounding because they're not dependent on NStar, but I think it's just a way of making excuses.

  5. Framingham is very accepting to developement, especially the developers that throw fundraiser for selectmen candidates.

  6. Regarding the usage of the old State Lumber site....I had heard that there are remediation issues on that property, too. The owner, as of yet, has shown no interest in addressing them, so I expect we will continue have to stare at that "parking lot" for some time. I hope not, but I am not optimistic.

  7. Hi there, I am getting a large number of students that can't access the internet. When they log on and open IE they don't get the default web page or a log in screen. It appears to be random, I have tried setting up new user accounts but this also appeasrs to be hit and miss on whether they get access.

    Any ideas?